Gamification Is Here To Stay (And It's Not Bullshit)

Gamification is a polarising and divisive topic with many proponents and vocal sceptics and cynics. But it is not bullshit. Gamification is real and its benefits are tangible. Gamification is here to stay.

Some say that gamification is a "perversion" of games, their mechanics twisted into a magical marketing pill for big, evil corporations. This overlooks all the good that gamification does, and has the potential to do more of -- while conveniently ignoring that the critics themselves work for giant corporate interests of their own.

But even as we acknowledge that some corporations might have nefarious interests, we must recognise that the fundamental purpose of all organisations is to create as much "value" as possible. This value may be measured in assets or lives saved, children made healthier or kilos of trash diverted from landfill. Regardless, there is no evidence that any of the passionate designers using gamification have ill intentions, but a lot of evidence to the contrary.

Is there truly deceit in gamification's fundamental nature, as some claim? Let's take Nike+ as an example. In Nike+, players are provided with clearly-disclosed encouragement to improve their physical fitness using a gamified system. And while Nike would clearly like for you to buy more shoes, they don't trick you into doing so by any other method than wearing them out from exercise. Conversely, advocates of persuasive games tend to bury their real message without full disclosure (see Ian Bogost's Cow Clicker or Dean for America as examples). By comparison, which application is more deceitful? The one trying to get you to vote for a candidate you might not like or one designed to help you get healthier? The question is really more subtle -- hinging on issues of truth, disclosure and self-determination rather than who designed the product and what it's advocating.

It also must be said that gamification is about much more than marketing. While the trend first took root in the marketing and advertising industries, it has spread to industries trying to solve social issues like obesity, education, good government, sustainability and the like.

In education, game mechanics are proving to be very useful tools within the classroom. Ananth Pai, a one-time business exec turned elementary school teacher, found that by adding games to his curriculum and using leaderboards and social challenges in the classroom his students improved dramatically in reading and math. In 18 weeks, his below-third-grade level class is now performing at a mid fourth-grade level in reading and math.

By implementing a gamified waste diversion program, Recyclebank has increased recycling rates and reduced landfill by 16%. Simultaneously, NYC-based NextJump has convinced 70 per cent of its employees to workout regularly using gamified techniques like leaderboards and team challenges. This has resulted in improved health, reduced absenteeism and healthcare costs both for the company and its employees. These are only several of the dozens of examples that can be found across the spectrum.

Gamification is helping real people with real issues -- promoting fitness, reducing waste, and helping improve education are only the start. If something has the power to do this, how can it be a perversion? And if, by an academic's definition, it truly is a perversion of video games -- so what?

Some also question the motivation of gamifiers, but I wonder how many sceptics have actually met the men and women working toward a more gamified world. In common law, two elements are required to prove a crime -- actus reus (the act) and mens rea (the intent). Though no one suggests a crime in this debate around gamification, this is a useful standard to use. The facts are that the majority of gamification implementations so far (actus) have been successful. And as I know most of the people involved in these projects (many of which will be speaking at GSummit this September) I can also tell you that the intent is positive and affirming. The argument against the motivation of designers building gamified platforms has very little basis in fact.

In his latest guest editorial on this site, Ian Bogost writes that the "-ification" of gamification denotes that the process is easy and repeatable to a fault. But what exactly is bad about a process, scalability, and repeatability? No matter what the art form, there must always be both a process and creativity. One must dip the brush in paint and put it on the canvas, letting it dry. How you choose to move it, what colours to use, and what the subject matter may be is up to you, but both process and creativity are required. This in no way diminishes the art form.

Similarly, no one person, group, or philosophy owns the definition of a video game, nor does one perspective get to say how the mechanics behind games can or cannot be used. Gamification is an industry in infancy, one that can and will create jobs and livelihoods for many people.

This year alone, gamification platforms have raised over $US30 million dollars, hundreds of startups launch every week with game mechanics at their core, and thousands of marketers, strategists and -- yes, even game designers -- descend on events like Gamification Summit to create an industry. By 2015, Gartner Group forecasts that 70 per cent of the Global 2000 will use a gamified app, spending over $US1.6 billion in the US alone (according to M2 Research) to make that happen. This, we believe, will eventually lead to over 10,000 jobs created, including many for budding game designers that want to both find jobs in a tough (and shrinking) market and to make life better.

There are real and tangible benefits to Gamification that cannot be denied. To write them off simply as perversions or tools of evil, scary corporations and marketers is more than denying your fellow gamer or designer the chance to make an honest living. It denies the world a chance at being a better place.

Gabe Zichermann is the chair the Gamification Summit (September 15-16 in New York City), an entrepreneur, and author of Gamification By Design and Game-Based Marketing. As an expert on using game mechanics in non-game contexts to solve real world problems, Gabe consults with industry, advises startups, and often speaks on the subject at industry events.


    Really enjoying this debate. I can't wait to see how Ian Bogost responds to this article. As a teacher and PhD student who's dabbled with gamifying education, I can say kids really do respond to game systems of learning over the tried and true methods schools have used for generations. I don't really care if people hate gamification. If it helps me to teach my students better, that's what really matters.

      as a student i can vouch for this. im sure im 1 in a million that goes home and postpones homework for gaming. however if a game touches on a topic that Ive studied in school, im immediately engaged in it and end up striving to soak up every bit of information, be it fictional or not. the information becomes more abstract when you layer it on a game system, but in the end its definitely worth researching more. definitely not bullshit..

    Wasn't Bogost's articles aimed purely at gamification for marketing purposes?

    Plus if Mr Zichermann is going to indulge in questioning the motives of his critics, it should definitely matter that he works as a professional consultant and 'gamification expert'.

    It's hardly in his interest to talk down his source of income, and the article does tend to focus on the warm and fuzzy side of the practice - teaching kids maths or getting employees fit - rather than the half-baked social media campaigns we see so often.

      Sounds like you and the ACL will get along with each other... by your logic, a gamer can't justify violent games because his intentions arn't true?

      I would rather much an expert of either side give comments then a pair of nobodies. Makes for a more deep and intriguing debate.

        That's not what he said; by his logic, we couldn't accuse the ACL of arguing because they have a vested interest in media being restricted, and vice versa they couldn't accuse us of only wanting games to come out in Australia because we play games.

        Yes, it is a bit ridiculous when you boil it down like that.

        Believe me, I don't see eye to eye with the ACL on anything.

        I'm just saying: arguments should be judged on their merits, not necessarily by who makes them. But if Zichermann wants to accuse Bogost of hiding his motives or concealing full disclosure, he should be prepared to reveal his own reasons for wholeheartedly embracing gamification - the most obvious of which would appear to be that he depends on it for his living.

        I totally accept that people with a vested interest have a right to enter a debate - I've done it more than often enough myself - and I'm not suggesting Zichermann's argument is any weaker because of what he does for a living.

        But it's always prudent to work out why people are saying the things they are, and I was just pointing that out. Even apart from that, I don't think he responded to Bogost's point about gamification as marketing.

          yeah, I'm with you. The 'bullshit' is the manipulative way in which this psychology is used by marketing and advertising... and he just kinda glossed over that at the beginning and I think he said anyone who brings it up works for evil corporate interests as well...? :-P I feel dirty now

    It's a bit harsh to criticise Mr. Bogost for creating a satire. I mean, straight up, that's what the criticism is: Cow Clicker is dishonest about its intentions. Of course it is. It could hardly be a satire of what Mr. Bogost sees as dishonest mechanics if it wasn't.

    Moreover, I don't think Mr. Zichermann has really answered the charge; Mr. Bogost's concern is that gamification is a loyalty scheme dressed up with superficial game-like terms, and that there's no guarantee that it'll be used in a way that benefits 'players'. The conversation about gamification doesn't naturally get into 'what do players get out of it' unless it's forced there; which suggests that it never comes up because there's no answer; all they get out of it is points and badges. And it's hard to take aspirational statements like 'making the world a better place' if it does essentially boil down to a loyalty scheme. It's hard to believe Subway Club cards could change the world, outside of the occasional free lunch.

    It's a shame that this wasn't addressed other than pointing to Nike+, released well before gamification became a 'thing'.

    From my point of view, right now, gamification looks like a fad, being used primarily to attempt to lock-in customers and improve corporate bottom-lines, as a cheap alternative to the expense of producing better products or competing in the marketplace. And I thought that it was working to some extent.

    But honestly. 30 million dollars for a whole industry for a year? Geez, that's nothing at all. I've endured this much "gamified" crap for this long, just so 30 million dollars could be raised across a whole industry?

    This has got to be approximately even with spam e-mail, in terms of "number of people annoyed per dollar earned". Well done.

    I am going to a LAN camp for schools kids in yrs 8 to 12 as a leader. I suggested giving kids 'exp' for certain things such as winning rounds, first kill with a rocket launcher as well as other activities and challenged non gaming related.

    The other leaders think it is a good idea and I have mentioned it to a few kids who I know are coming. They think it is the coolest thing ever.

    I expect half the camp will volunteer for washing up duty for more exp.

    And yes, we will be balancing it so that everyone gets a chance to level up several times.

    I also know a teacher who uses a similar but simpler system in the classroom. Kids are more engaged and eager to do most tasks.

    Gamification is a great motivator for kids. For adults, I'm not so sure. I just got an email from Microsoft about their Tech Ed conference, and they will be having something called the Tech Ed Quest involving QR codes and stuff. Not really interested.

      Exactly what I've found. Perhaps it is in education that gamification will find a more meaningful niche. If anyone who isn't a teacher enters a school and listens to kids' conversations, most of them talk about gaming. It makes sense to try to take advantage of that in some way. Having educational games on a computer in the corner of a room is not the solution. Giving these kids exp will actually motivate them to help out around your camp. Best of luck with it mate :-)

    hey some people LIKE prostitutes! thank you very much!

    How come everyone ignores the US army's early contribution to gameification (America's Army)?

    Gameification has very little to do with games. It has far more to do with rewards.

    Imagine a game with rewards but the work to get them is really hard and unrewarding in itself. Gamers would call that grind but marketing calls it gameification.

      Free2play what?

      Nice article btw. I was confused at first because it was longer than 2 sentences. I thought I'd accidentally been linked to another website. :p

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